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Running On Empty Part III: Testing the Limits of Brokenness
Trip Report

Running On Empty Part III: Testing the Limits of Brokenness

Running On Empty Part III: Testing the Limits of Brokenness

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: California, United States, North America

Date Ridden: Nov 30, 1999 12:00 am

Activities: Paved

Season: Spring


Page By: junodirtrider

Created/Edited: Jan 9, 2010 / Aug 30, 2011

Object ID: 274360

Hits: 3814 

Page Score: 82.48%  - 15 Votes 

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Respite and Recovery in Lone Pine

Sleeping in a sprinkler does not allow for a good nights rest. I finished the night sleeping on the sidewalk and a solid portion of the day was spent watching a monolithic dust storm over the dry Owens Lake bed, bog up the horizon and the entire road en route to Death Valley. I retreated into Lone Pine’s shoe box sized library for shelter to wait for the storm to pass. Soon after my arrival, I shared introductions with a guy whose shaved head, skinny figure, and tan skin mimicked my own. Impressed with my adventure, he took pity on my physical condition and offered his accommodations for two nights rest before my travels continued. This came as quite a surprise and I took him up on his offer.

Owens River Near Lone Pine
Owens River Near Lone Pine
He lived in his father’s home, on a piece of property which he inherited and is located directly east of Whitney’s summit at 6800’. The dilapidated house was made entirely of wood that looked milled in the 1930’s. The four room shanty boasted no modern conveniences, outside of an electric stove oven and one living room lamp. The home’s seemingly absent water pressure was due to a natural supply that often shrunk to nothing more than a trickle after the summer melt out concluded. Bathing was off limits, but a five minute shower was okay… every other day. Water is an especially precious commodity in California’s Inyo and Owens counties,  
Leaving Lone Pine
Heading Towards Keeler
but this was my first real glimpse of its value on a personal basis. When my two night limit was up, the bike willingly rolled out down the skimpy tire tracked driveway that eventually intersected with the Portal Road. There was no need to pedal. The bike coasted easily down through the Alabama Hills and into town. Two miles south of town, I turned southeast on the 136 towards Keeler and the entrance to Death Valley beyond.

Lush, long green grasses and shrubbery decorated the side of the road and the nearly flat plain of grayish white sands. The Owens River flowed deep... deep and dark in color and full from spring’s early season runoff. It is obvious that as the road continued, change was eminent and for this change, I road on. The sanded floor turned into a pebbled carpet of green vegetation, soft for the eyes to observe against a dry, white lakebed. Soon the sands returned, choking off and limiting the green growth of spring. Stones and leafless twigs paired up with tumbleweeds for a spell, but before long that bond, too, was broken by warm gusts of air. The day is my hottest one yet and I am beginning to sense that heat works against everything here. Near the door of Death Valley, the soaring temperatures and gusting winds have no equivalent foe and eventually break down everything to fibrous shards and dust.

Absurdity to Obscurity

Death Valley Pineapple Trees
"Pineapple Trees"
Ten miles down the road is the wilted town of Keeler. The old mining community boasted a population of 3000 back in the 1940’s. Today, about fifty remain, taking respite in a trailer park decorated for desert tourists. History was undone here and is a pathetic roadside attraction at best. One trailer had two ancient gas pumps and a ten foot tall replica of the Transamerica skyscraper. The neighbor’s yard isn’t much better. The skeleton of a cow lay next to a fire pit formed out of shattered purple glass. The eye catching purple fire pit is followed by a vertically placed railroad tie with a collection of porcelain  
Joshua Trees Out Of Lone Pine
Joshua Trees
electricity conductors as a crown. In front of it all was a rocky stream bed that acted as a false waterway for a rainbow shaped walking bridge. On the hand railing sat a big old oblong rock and painted like a skull white. Nothing about Keeler seemed ordinary to me.

A couple miles out of town the valley became a basaltic lava bed, dirty grayish brown in color. The road whoopty-doed for several miles. Then the mountains transformed their color from a golden khaki to a charcoal gray entwined with a pale olive green hue to the range. State road 136 merged with the 190 and gently inclined itself for the next six miles. It must have been close to noon before I was able to take a shade break beneath a gigantic mileage sign. This sign at mile 18 afforded me about four feet of shade where I enjoyed an orange and a coke. There would no more shade again for ten miles, at which point the road cut a gulley right through a hill. Joshua trees dotted the gray horizon to the west and to the south.

At mile 36, I strode off the road to a rock pile formation that overlooked a black rimmed butte. When I first sat down, a fat, wide bellied, stub tailed, square headed lizard darted out and back in amongst the rocks. A good number of birds cooed and whistled beautiful tunes from their ground level nests. The senses of my ears and eyes caught up with nature, but my body was flushed from the change in temperature. “Phew…” I moaned. “Where’s my sunblock?” I rummaged to find the lotion and chugged down several gulps of tepid water. “Ahhhh… delicious!” The road steadily climbed up to mile 40 and then flattened off for the next six miles. At the top, the road crosses into Death Valley National Park before sling-shotting down a massive, 2500 foot descent into Panamint Springs.
Lower Darwin Falls
Lower Darwin Falls
Upper Darwin Falls
Upper Darwin Falls

I pulled just up short of Panamint Springs and turned south onto a six mile long dirt road that dead ended at the Darwin Falls trailhead. Named after a local miner rather than a scientist, Darwin Falls is a peculiarly for Death Valley. As I will describe in a moment or two, the location is more like something the evolutionist would have enamored himself with and claimed as another holy grail site of natural phenomena and ecological importance, like he did with the Galapagos Islands. Dusk ended abruptly. I had but a handful of minutes to situate myself before the envelope of darkness was licked shut for the night. I abandoned everything but my headlamp on the far side of the oversized parking lot and strolled over to make acquaintances with a family having a campfire between their rusty white pickup truck and the hillside. A tall, beloted white man slurred some words when responding to my hellos. He wore a dirty t-shirt and his spare tire gut spilled out like a plumber’s butt spells fat ass. He wore ragged tennis shoes and wobbled to and fro with a can of Budweiser in his hand. His name was Bill and introduced his Native American wife, Gloria, who was just as drunk and just as shabby. Their eight or ten year old son told the story well. “He’s a faller,” the boy explained and I soon witnessed a couple of his dad’s tree trunk-like spills into the dirt. John was the oldest of the three kids and it was obvious he thought the world of his dad. “I’ll probably kill myself when my dad dies,” he said, and I was taken aback at that statement, but who was I to judge. Their story didn’t get more hopeful than that and so I retreated to the bike to prepare for sleep.
Lower Darwin Falls
Upper Darwin Falls

Light began to illuminate the parking lot and it was clear that the gentle wash narrowed out big time as the trail began. Soon it was scrunched down from 100 feet to 30 feet and then from 20 to 10. Bluish green lichen covered gray basalt walls that abruptly grew in stature as I continued along the path. Tall thickets choked all but the trail and brushed up against my arms and shoulders as I moved them aside. The canyon bottlenecked and the trail ended at an alcove with a shallow, ankle deep pool beneath a narrow, bisecting waterfall. Amongst other unseen critters, water skidders, frogs, and lizards all made the area their home. I scanned around for wildlife and found a square dotted lizard gnawing on the head and tail of a two and a half inch caterpillar. All at once the lizard decided to engulf the whole thing sucking it down like a snake works on its prey. Teetering on amazement of the breakfast ritual I just witnessed, I moseyed over to the left hand side of the canyon and scrambled up over some rocks and horizontal tree limbs. A minute or so later, there appeared an eight story cascading waterfall with two beautiful dipping pools at the base. While sketching a drawing of the falls, a man and lady hiked up past my point where they proceeded to bust out their flute and piccolo and make harmonious music at the base of the pools. Amazing!!

Exit the Mountains; Enter the Dragon

Descending Into The Panamint Valley
Descent Into Panamint Springs
The road continued to descend as it curled out into the Panamint Valley on its way to the resort. On this day I had not done much hard pedaling yet, but began to realize how tired I was feeling. The good news was that Panamint Springs sits at a lovely elevation of just 1000 feet. The bad news was that the next eleven miles of straightaway road climbed up Towne Pass to an elevation of 4,956 feet above sea level. “Jiminy Christmas,” I thought to myself. “This is going to be one tough mama.” I reeled with anxiety over my plight as I rested at the side of the road at the Panamint Valley Road intersection in the middle of the valley. Procrastination and frustration translated into blessed relief here. As it turned out, a couple of nice middle aged ladies offered to put my bike in the back of their car and run me to the top of the mountain.
Descending Towne Pass Into Stovepipe Wells
Descent Into Stovepipe Wells

To say the least, I jumped at their generous offer. The speedy descent from Towne Summit was warm and dry and lasted but twenty minutes. Cars were gracious and moved aside around the few gentle turns. They passed easily as I hugged the road’s handlebar width wide shoulder. Off to the north eastern side of Death Valley a plume of hazy brown sky filled the desert floor and as time went on, the cloud grew larger and larger and closer and closer. Turns out it was a sandstorm and I was racing it towards Stovepipe Wells. Good fortune continued to root for the weary traveler as I pulled in to town a mere handful of minutes ahead of the all consuming monster. As the storm approached, the sky turned a nasty brown near the floor of the desert and chaos broke out all around. Suddenly, a camping tent was tumbling into the throat of the storm. While the tent disappeared, people ran in the direction of cars and motor homes for cover. Others who were too far from the confines of shelter, staggered and fought through the winds with their arms hiding their faces as particles of sand blasted them to who knows where! I tried to hide in the open shelter of the public pool, but quickly gathered my belongings and bee-lined it for the hotel’s restaurant. The dichotomy of my situation could not be more pronounced. One minute I was zipping down the heated pavement towards civilization, the next minute I am basically brought to  
Death Valley s Dancing Cobra Weeds
Dancing Cobra Weeds
my knees and at the mercy of highly erosive elements, and a minute after that I am lounging in a nicely varnished wooden chair, at a plain round table, in a large dining hall with popular nicety-nice music with a perspirating glass of ice water in my hand. Talk about a scenario I could not have imagined… and the crazy thing was that things were about to change again!

While having a salad and chatting about the storm with some people next to me, they purposed that I get the heck out of dodge and grab a ride in their truck up to Mesquite Springs campground where the dust storm was nonexistent. That sounded great to me because figured I had seen enough of the storm, which was predicted to lambaste the Wells on into the evening.
The campground at Mesquite Springs was surrounded by rocky cobbles, but before long, all visibility was gone. Evenings in Death Valley are quickly swallowed up by big darkness and chilly nights. One must be still for a good period to fully take in the changing hues of evening blues. And then if someone is not prepared with some kind of battery operated light in hand, a person can easily find themselves swamped up, bogged down, and floundering in the complete darkness of a desert night. One blessing about night is always the morning’s promise for hot coffee in the cup. The Whisperlite roared to life with vengeance over the noiseless dawn and brewed the fastest cup of camp coffee on this trip. I sipped the hot beverage while slowly and thought about what to do. After three cups, I decided to check out the local stuff and to visit Scotty’s Castle and the Ubehebe Crater. Later, I repacked the bike for a forty-five mile excursion along the western flanks of the Grapevine Mountains. Then I toured from the north end of Death Valley back to the centralized accommodations of Stovepipe Wells.

Adventures In Landscape

Ubehebe Crater
Ubehebe Crater
From Mesquite Spring campground, the road is very straight forward. It climbs just a few hundred feet, with most of the gain coming near the crater’s rim. There at the edge of the main overlook, a young teenager stood with an old skateboard deck looking uneasy and perplexed. “Are you going to ride that puppy down this?” I asked. He was, but he was also having second thoughts about the ingenious plan he had concocted back at his home in Los Angeles. Being a bright young kid from the trend setting state of Idaho, I volunteered to alleviate his worries of disaster and show him how it’s done, or more humbly, that it could be done safely. He immediately coughed up the board and after a grinning thank you, I was off. Unlike surfing or snowboarding, crater boarding down a loose sedimentary slope was more like the grinding feeling you experience while sledding down a not so snowy, gravel road.  
Heading South From Mesquite Springs
Heading South Along Grapevine Mountains
Rather than the free flowing and fluid like motions of other board sports, crater boarding was coarse and highly abrasive. One could tell that a fall on this stuff was going to be costly! Several hundred feet down into the crater I raised my arms to success and let out a victory yell. Then I proceeded to drag my butt slowly back out to the rim. For another half hour or so, the kid and I took several more runs alternating up and down the scree. Completely whipped from the early morning pummeling, I remounted my bike and departed for the respite of Scotty’s Castle.

Over the next 33 miles, the pavement descended nearly 3000 feet. At one point, I coasted every bit of fourteen miles and barely needed to do anything but keep the bike pointed down the road. I was really enjoying the ride and having a wonderful time marveling at the country side. Feeling sporty I decided to ride three miles up the side of an alluvial fan into the entrance of Titus Canyon. The road through the canyon is actually the route of flash floods and portions of the road must be plowed anew when the wash deposits extensive material and debris across the route. Between the canyon walls there is silence, lest a crow squawk or an oriel sing. Bunches of crate paper thin, yellow tissue colored flowers grow in Titus Canyon. Protected and surrounded by thousands of fine, sliver thin prickly thorns, the small shrub unleashes a barrage of minuscular daggers upon anything that brushes up against it. Try to dust them away with your hand and, trust me, you’ll wish you had a set of tweezers to pick out each one individually for the next good portion of the day. Several prickly pear cacti had sprung to life in the canyon, as well. Easier to one’s nervous system and other senses, the prickly pears' vibrant purple blossoms stood out effortlessly against orange and brown bulges of cliff walls.
Titus Canyon
Leaving Titus Canyon
Devil s Cornfield
Devil's Cornfield

Strewn out below the mouth of Titus Canyon was a rocky wasteland of vital biological importance and although I did not know the ins and outs of it all, I figured that balance was the key to life in Death Valley. All shades and aspects of color occur in this portion of the valley. The mountains were like malted hills of melting ice cream intertwining with candle waxed flood plains, and a yogarty valley floor. Twenty four inch parsley-like plate trimmings sprouted about the rubbled grounds. Such descriptions allude to the alluvial fans that pour out of the mountainous gullies and the vegetation that grows on it. Interestingly, the world’s largest alluvial fan emanating from single source is in Death Valley near the town of Badwater.

Miles down the road, a sign pointed out the covered wagon trail of 1849. From there I continued pedaling west through the Devil’s Cornfield, past the sand dunes, and on into the shady patio of the pool at Stovepipe Wells. After a refreshing dip, I reversed my direction to retire for the night off the road near one of the taller bushes I could find at the base of the sand dunes. Due to a certain paranoia with snakes slithering under my sleeping bag at night in search of warmth, I zipped myself into the bivy sack to ensure no unwanted trespassers. Foolishness, for sure, but so are most superstitions.

Last Day on the Job

Scarred Floor Near Sand Dunes
Encrusted Mud Near Dunes
Drip, drip, drip… A trickle of blue and orange began to leak from dawn’s twilight and then, krrr-splash!! A wave of color burst forth with tidal propulsion. I got up and wandered off in the direction of the dunes discarding a hat, shirt, socks, and sandals along the way. In a cloak of warm light the sands squeezed between and parted my toes under the weight of prodding feet. Tip-toeing on a sand dune is useless. The feet make deep indentations. Spiny hairs stuck out of a freshly shaved head. Aggravated by the pool’s chlorine and a case of dry scalp, I agitated my head, scratching it with my fingers like claws. Thinking about the abrasive qualities of sand, I plopped my head into a dune and twist my head from left to right and back again. Whipping my head out of the dune and flinging sand around made me feel free, at least as free as I could be.
Devil s Cornfield and Sand Dunes
Devil's Cornfield & Sand Dunes

Invigorated by the dunes, I recollected my garments to begin the days ride.
My next stop was the highly anticipated visit to Salt Creek and the home of the Pupfish. Cyprinodon Salinus Salinus was once a freshwater fish that became trapped and isolated in Death Valley’s salt infested waters by the end of an ice age. There it did something that no other fish ever did. It adapted to its environs; soaring air and water temperatures coupled with some of the highest saline concentrations in the world! To top it off, they hibernate in an underground cave for nine months out of the year. Yet, from February through April, they live above ground to spawn in a creek that reaches maximum depth of like, a finger length. A professional photographer named Leon Jenson had a small tripod propped just above the water’s surface fishing for images of this fascinating overgrown guppy sized fish. In his soft demeanor, he marveled and elaborated on their existence and spoke of his long time desire to visit this site. Having witnessed my fill of scurrying tail waggers, I rode off; far from thinking I would see him again.
Salt Creek: Home of the Pupfish
Salt Creek: Home of the Pupfish

The road cut between wind-flattened hills and further descended, unnoticeably, into the depths of Death Valley. The temperature on this April day was 90 degrees. It was nearing lunchtime and there had been no shade to speak of when on the side of the road a little green sign appeared and read, “Elevation Sea Level.” Wow, I had done it!! A couple weeks earlier this adventure began from sea level at the coast and now I had returned to sea level some 350 miles inland. It seemed weird as I paused to capture in the moment. Taking off again, the inspiration was short lived. Within a mile or so I pulled over and leaned the bike against a mile marker, reflector post. There against the post I collapsed to my rear, exhausted. Thoughts of Jonah ran through my head. After he got spit out of the whale’s belly Johan sat frustrated on the beach beneath a wilted vine. My plight seemed similar. I was ka-put, spent, depleted, bonked, spanked… My body was shot and my emotions drained. This bicycle trip was over!!

I did not really know what I was going to do because seven miles remained to be covered before the small community of Furnace Creek. Several minutes passed before a bright orange service truck with Idaho plates came around the bend. I decided to wave a thumb at him for a ride. Unfortunately, he thought I was kidding until he looked in his rear view mirror and saw me waving it more frantically and figured I might be serious, which of course I was. At the convenience store in Furnace Creek I put my collapse on full display by lying down on a wide rock wall. With my knees bent and a hat over my face I simply fell asleep. Next thing I knew, someone was tapping me awake. It was Leon, the photographer. He told me that he had seen me napping and that he might as well do the same. So after his nap, he decided to pass me one of his business cards and tell me that he was on his way to Vegas. Well, I jumped on all over that fact and asked him if it would be possible to score a ride into Sin City, some 200 miles away. He said sure and we were off!!



[ Post a Comment ]
Viewing: 1-12 of 12

Andy LivoA Great...

Andy Livo

Voted 10/10

...read Juno. Sounds totally amazing, exillerating, exhausting and definately not to be forgotten. Really vivid story. Love the drawings too. Nice one Juno.
Posted Jan 9, 2010 5:30 pm

junodirtriderRe: A Great...


Hasn't voted

Hey, tanks!! Tanks a lot!! That was the last of my big ones. None have been as extensive since that one. Still there's been other adventures closer to home.
Posted Jan 10, 2010 1:50 am

CedarSounds Like Fun


Voted 10/10

I remember coming across a "sandstorm" in the Eureka Valley to the north. 50 mph winds + North America's 2nd tallest dunes = 1000' high waves of sand = interesting but really NOT fun to be in + scratches on everything.
Posted Jan 10, 2010 3:06 pm

junodirtriderRe: Sounds Like Fun


Hasn't voted

Yeah, what a site to see that spooky brown ghost approaching, but, man, when it hits, its something else, huh? It's take cover and hide!!!!
Posted Jan 11, 2010 11:18 pm

MalibuIncredible detail


Voted 10/10

Along with the photos, you must have kept a considerable written journal. Great adventure!
Posted Jan 11, 2010 11:12 pm

junodirtriderRe: Incredible detail


Hasn't voted

Thanks for the read, Dave!! I really enjoy writing about trips, especially biking and climbing. Up until last year, I enjoyed writing for the Juneau Empire newspaper's sports and outdoors sections and then Summitpost and MBpost came along! These two sites have just about have all my big adventures in them. The 90's were good to me in that way.
Posted Jan 11, 2010 11:29 pm

BeDrinkableI just got a chance to read pt III.


Voted 10/10

It's still great. These kinds of trips are just amazing. Places that are isolated attract all kinds of interesting folks who seem glued together by a common interest in survival. I wouldn't want to live in a place like Furnace Creek or Salton, but there's no place that I'd rather break down!
Posted Jan 14, 2010 12:56 pm

junodirtriderRe: I just got a chance to read pt III.


Hasn't voted

Like you say, sometimes getting out in places that draw similar folk is great because they act more like angels then your average urban local. All the nice folk seem to be traveling!! You never meet them when they are at home.
Posted Jan 14, 2010 8:48 pm

rustybikeGood descriptive writing !


Voted 10/10

The rest of us most definitely get the knack of the action once people with the qualities to do proper description give an account that brings out with spontaneity every moment... I for one wouldn`t try my luck knowing how dismal my descriptions may be !

Great material ! Unfortunately in my opinion the account seemed to end prematurely despite the fact that you did hitch a ride as oppposed to taking the bike !
Posted Jan 25, 2010 5:21 pm

junodirtriderRe: Good descriptive writing !


Hasn't voted

Thanks, Rustarama!! I do enjoy good banter and yours is top notch too. Your writing voice is very distinct and I enjoy reading your info and notations here on the post. Please keep posting the word, man!! Sincerely, JDR
Posted Jan 25, 2010 9:21 pm

RayMondoReally well written


Voted 10/10

The first paragraph really keeps ones attention and made me want to read on. And the rest would sound so good narrated as something to listen to. Although short, punchy sentences can often work well, these long sentences keep it rolling with great nouns, adjectives and verbs (dust storm, dry, retreated...). And it gets better. The word "noon" in Section 2, really hits the spot for anything West. And you got the little details in, the passing encounters, the lizard...

Wow, quite the best Article I've read. Keep up that style for sure. And take it to the radio station, they ought to read it on-air. Jees man, what you bin smokin'
Posted Feb 2, 2010 3:20 pm

junodirtriderRe: Really well written


Hasn't voted

I just keep huffin'... huffin' that O2 that keeps us all going.
Posted Feb 2, 2010 6:05 pm

Viewing: 1-12 of 12